Anthony Payne

Written by: Colin Anderson

Anthony Payne talks about his award-winning work Visions and Journeys, and the British Composer Awards

Classical composers get awards, too. “I think we rather like them!” says Anthony Payne. He is “very proud” to have won the Radio 3 Listeners vote in the first, 2003 British Composer Awards. This year’s winners are announced on the 17th and followed by a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in the Barbican that includes Payne’s prize-winning Visions and Journeys. “It’s quite a romantic work, my version of a symphony, and I was being quite daring with myself in sometimes doing quite simple ideas. It’s a homage to a piece of Sibelius, The Oceanides, a magnificent work.”

Although the award Payne scooped involves the listening public, he believes that “classical music over the last 20 years has become really embattled.” Payne cites as a problem the “taking music out of schools; people aren’t brought into contact so they automatically think that classical music is elitist. That’s astonishing to me. I never felt it was elitist; I came from an ordinary middle-class family and I fell in love with music through hearing it on the radio.” As for prizes themselves: “Anything that helps to put us before a bigger public, especially if they can relate these prizes to things like the Booker Prize, is welcome.”

Tony has been involved as a jury member for this year’s BCA and is in favour of a “real cross-section of judges, so that it doesn’t become cliquish.” Aside from the Listeners Award, “the other prizes are judged by professional musicians and there’s no bar to entrants that range from, talking frankly, the barely competent to the absolutely professional and terrific. The Listener’s Prize is filtered out by the Beeb for what they offer listeners.”

I ask about the many composing styles now to be heard. “Nothing is out of bounds these days. When I hit London after university, and was trying to launch myself as a composer, you really did feel there was a fairly narrow world that you had to impress, the avant-garde, which luckily I was at one with. Now it’s more difficult for composers because there are so many choices.” Has Tony noticed any trends? “The minimal trend is still attracting composers, repetitive phase patterns. I look askance at that because that music is too easy to write. It’s like setting up a machine, switching it on and off it goes. Composing should be more difficult; it’s about life and one should get a lot of thought into it as well as a lot of emotion.” Tony Payne is also doubtful about “the new simplicity, the John Tavener kind of music, which is easy to pastiche.” Payne’s not anti-Tavener, for he thinks The Lamb and Song for Athene are “rather splendid”, although the latter “could have been written by Holst.”

How to judge such diverse pieces, though? “I think just about every person on every panel I’ve ever been on says that it’s ridiculous and that art is not susceptible to prizes; it’s not like who ran the 100 metres fastest. But giving a prize spotlights the whole thing and gives music a boost; anybody who gets in the last three can be really proud.” In the last three for this year’s Listener Award is Lumina by Joseph Phibbs, first heard at the Last Night of Proms 2003. Great he if wins; Payne believes he is a “really good composer, original.” He’s not letting on though! I wonder though if younger composers could prostitute their true inclinations to emulate music that wins awards or proves popular? “I doubt you’d get any of them to admit that, but I think there might be a danger.”

The BBC concert, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, includes Payne’s Visions and Journeys, well received at its Proms 2002 premiere, Elgar’s In the South (“super work”) and two lots of Susan Graham, first in Ravel’s ravishing Shéhérazade and then in songs by Debussy orchestrated by John Adams. As composer, Tony Payne is currently writing a Horn Trio requested by a horn player for his diamond wedding, and he has a commission from the London Sinfonietta, which he deems “an honour”. The listener, then, has much to look forward to.

  • British Academy
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 15 December and is reproduced here with permission

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